I often get asked to divulge my recipe for DIY Music Career Success. The dirty truth is that I had no recipe. I've been a musician all my life and I've stumbled along like everyone else, for years.
I had no idea of any of this as a 'plan', but looking back at it all, here are some things that have worked for me. I will list them and then summarize into a larger 'strategy'.
#1 Saying yes to crazy things
There have been many seemingly nutty things that people have asked me to play at or write music for. Until I had a baby last year, I used to say yes to most of them. Hopefully when my son is a little older I'll be able to say yes again ;-). Anyway, this 'strategy' also happens to be the kind of thing that I like to do anyway. An example that sticks out:
An out-of-the-blue request from a friend-of-an-acquaintance: "Will you come and play in the desert next week for a commemoration of the Trinity nuclear test? We're going to make a simulation of a nuclear blast at dawn and would love it if you'd play a piece after the blast. We can't pay you, its a 6hr drive, the last hour across a roadless area, you'll be recommended to take a 4WD"
When I was asked to do this, my husband, housemates and I were in the middle of being evicted from our warehouse home, I had multiple work deadlines, and I was practically broke. Doing it sounded like a real pain in the you-know-what, but I was intrigued. So I replied.
Me: "This sounds awesome, I'll be there."
Inspired by the idea, I spent the next week composing a piece of music for the occasion. I convinced my husband to come along. After a long day spent crossing the desert, we came upon a camp of about 100 people, hard at work. They had 6 industrial blowers, the kind you use in mines, intending to pump biodiesel into the middle of the fan circle and ignite it. The blast would go 250 feet in the air and look strikingly like a mushroom cloud. I laid out a tarp a safe distance away (to protect my cello and computer from the dust) and setup for the performance. We stayed up all night and at dawn the blast went off. I played the music, the small crowd dispersed....and I was interviewed by someone who happened to be there from NPR.
The week following, I got a little profile on Boing Boing, a little mention on NPR. The chap from NPR invited me down to do an interview on Day to Day a few months later. My CD went to #1 on iTunes classical, where it stayed for a little bit and the staff made me an iTunes banner. $10,000 in digital sales the month of the NPR story.
Not a bad bonus for saying yes to a crazy thing.
#2 Play to my venn diagram audience.
I never thought of this one as a strategy either. Basically, I love music and I love musicians, but I identify with and like to hang around with technology geeks.
One thing lead to another and I ended up playing at tech conferences and then at tech companies and then those tech companies started licensing my music for various things. The idea of playing at tech conferences seems silly to some music folks I've talked to, but I think its a strategy....finding your Venn diagram audience.
Here's how it works:
I am a musician
I am interested in technology
You are a technologist
You are interested in music
We have things in common and I think we might like each other. I want you to listen to my music but rather than expect you to come to my world, the world of nighclubs and stages, I will come to find you where you are...at your company, at a tech conference, etc. The result: A tightly knit, connected and engaged audience that sees you as one of them....and tell their friends about you.
A venn diagram doesn't have to have geeks in it. It could be Foodies, or Environmentalists, or Librarians, or Bicyclists. The key is that you have to be passionate about the subject also ;-)
I will now summarize these 2 pseudo-strategies as "Be Where No One Expects You to Be" or, "You can be a big fish if you make your pond smaller"
Do people expect to see a cellist at a nuclear commemoration event thrown by pyromaniacs in the middle of the desert. Or at a Ruby on Rails conference?
No one will find me if I don't put myself out there (the saying 'yes' part) and if I'm out there with other passionate people in a place where people don't expect me to be (the venn diagram part)....it might be more memorable and more remarkable. I care about connecting with the subset of people in the intersections of my venn diagrams (I have several, not just tech folks). I don't worry about trying to be any larger than that. I think this works financially and it helps me stay focused and sane as my career grows. Niche, niche, niche!
Caveat, Disclaimer and a follow-up question: The world of marketers will tell you otherwise, but I don't believe it's possible to succeed by executing deliberate strategies that aren't YOU, and I certainly don't condone it. I believe that in the DIY world there needs to be authenticity for anything to work. You have to really be doing the things you're doing because you care about, believe in and love them. That it leads to glorious success is a happy byproduct.
My question at the end of this: "If you do art for purely strategic reasons, is it evil?" I don't want to be too harsh, but I feel like the answer is yes. I'd like to hear what other people think though.